The Number One Reason People Don’t Receive Our Message

I  used to hate the word marketing.

When I was in school, I had zero interest in it, even though it was a part of my communication studies. I saw it as something that was completely divorced from, or at best something that came completely after, the more interesting and meaningful work of producing a story or idea. Marketing wasn’t “content,” though nobody called what we do “content” back then; it was part of the inauthentic, dirty tactics of “sales.”

As I’ve added years of experience, I’ve realized I was wrong.


Is Your Message in Focus To Other People?

Have you ever seen a photograph or film with a stunning contrast between a subject, which is in focus, and a deep background, which is out of focus? Deep, unfocused circles of blurry color is trendy and one of my favorite looks. When I got my start in ministry, colleagues and I tried in vain to capture this “film look” with mid-90s, prosumer level cameras.

Advances in technology are making such images more possible now. The trending photographic technique bokeh, first named in the late 1990s, is dedicated to the out-of-focus areas of an image. It is the big soft blurry spots of overlapping color in the back of a photograph.

I love the look, but bokeh kind of cracks me up, too, because for the last 30 years it never occurred to me that my natural state of vision is artistic. I’ve worn corrective lenses since I was seven. My eyes are really bad. Without contacts or glasses, the stoplights are boken and I wouldn’t advise you to ride shotgun with me.

A lot of our messages are unintentionally bokeh, too. Our ideas look great to us – but what do they look like at a distance, or to the person on the other end?  Sometimes we can’t see past our own nose. We see our brilliant idea only through our limited view as the sender.


Pneumatic Tube

Privately, a lot of us communicators admit that the people we’re speaking to don’t seem to absorb much. It can seem that, despite best efforts, our messages lack resonance. People just don’t remember them.

It’s usually not the ideas themselves. We develop solid, accurate content, but for some reason it just doesn’t change behavior. People leave class talking their task list or worship talking about lunch. We craft a message to change hearts and lives but, most of the time, it seems like we change very little.

‘Cause I know there’s got to be another level…
Can I break the spell of the typical
– Mute Math


As a communication undergraduate, I was taught Roman Jakobson’s theory on the act of communication, which is organized along a path:

Sender Message Receiver

Jakobson had a bit more flesh on his theory, but let’s consider his basic skeleton.

Most of us send our message like we’re pressing the button on the pneumatic tube in our bank drive-through line. We put a set of stuff together and shoot it, intact, from our mind to the receiver. Seems simple, right? I have something to say and I give it to you. Most of us don’t question the communication process; our focus is on hitting send, and we assume a clear path to the other side once it’s gone.

But if we’re honest, and think about it, we know it doesn’t always work like that.

What we have here is a failure to communicate.
– Cool Hand Luke

I experience this phenomenon every night when I go home. I have something important to share, but with four hungry children and a crop in the field, it’s hard to get a word in edgewise. I walk in the door and start describing something of incredible importance to my family but watch in frustration as everyone moves about and asks each other and me questions at once. For a while I developed an annoying technique where I would repeat the first part of my lead sentence three of four times to get everyone’s attention. My wife rightfully hated this. She’d say, “I’m listening, just tell me already. I have to do this other thing too!” Nice way to kick off a pleasant conversation, huh. (Oddly, my five year old son also does this when trying to get a word in edgewise at the family dinner table.)

We like to pretend how we present our idea doesn’t matter. It does.
Then I read a Facebook status that helped tremendously. It said, “If you want to tell someone something, make sure that they are first in a position to hear it.” Of course! What I needed to do was to create an environment. I’ve learned over the years that my wife likes what Gary Chapman in The Five Love Languages calls Acts of Service. Especially making her a fresh glass of sweet tea. A little interest in her life that day, quiet eye contact while she describes the upcoming Wilson household itinerary, some focused feedback on decisions to be made – these acts of empathy are what she needs. Then, when I have reconnected, and this is a daily reconnection, she is in a better position to hear the thing I need to say.

Just because we send a message doesn’t mean they get it.

That the preacher has a message does not mean that the listeners will get the message.
– Fred Craddock

JM Logo 250
If you want someone to hear a message, first you have to put them in a position to hear it. The gospel is holistic; it is personal and social. It is not dualistic, or a separation of body and spirit. To split the two is the heresy of the Greeks, called Gnosticism. A story is not, as Greek philosophers imagined, just a message for the mind or the spirit. It is Hebraic. It is whole body. Missionaries eventually realized this and began to minister not just to the souls of the people in their adopted village, but to all of the needs of the village, including better schools, hospitals and more.

The Number One Reason people don’t hear our message is that we like to pretend how we present the idea doesn’t matter. It does. And the presentation is called, as I learned, marketing.


This is part 2 of a 12 part series, Jesus Marketer.

Next, Part 3: Jesus Had a Marketing Strategy

About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).